With Valentine’s Day upon us again, I can’t help thinking (as many others have, I’m sure) about the concept of a soulmate. I stumbled across a fascinating little story, one I’d heard before but admittedly forgot, and I was reminded that this whole idea of a soulmate, someone who was meant to be our other half, has been around for a really long time. We perpetuate the idea. We struggle with it, grapple with it, confirm it, and deny it. For better or for worse, the concept seems to be inescapable. But is there any substance? Is there anything that indicates truth in the idea that there is one absolutely perfect match for everyone on this planet and that only that one match can fulfill the ideal? Being the bibliophile that I am, I decided to turn to some of Literature’s greatest loves to ferret out the answer.
What I found is that great loves of literature can be divided into two camps: those who are destined for each other and those who are compatible and find love through commitment and endurance. Within those camps, particularly within the camp of the destined, lovers can be divided into two further camps: tragic and comic. Take a look:
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. While they inarguably get off to a rough start, their derision for each other in the beginning serves as the perfect “meet cute” in retrospect. By the end of the book, both characters are equally guilty of being both proud and prejudiced, and readers seem to find the two inextricably linked. Further, we are often confounded to think of a better match for either character, suggesting that, despite some turbulence in its making, their relationship is one in which each component improves the other.
Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. What it lacks in age, Ron’s and Hermione’s relationship demonstrates, once again, that opposites can and do attract. Ron and Hermione struggle with the idea that they are meant to be together. Still, readers can see that one is meant for the other in the same way that toast is meant for jam, if you’ll pardon the cliché. They are as two sides of the same coin, intellect united with passion and loyalty. Destiny could do far worse.
That’s it. Those are the ones I could most readily describe as being in any way both divinely ordained and destined for happiness.
Heathcliff and Cathy. If ever a relationship was doomed to ultimate disaster, it is theirs. Neither person is very likable. Neither garners much in the way of sympathy. Neither seems an appropriate match for anyone with even a shred of empathy. In fact, both seek to raise hell for anyone willing to give them a chance. But, as Cathy suggests, they are two people cut from the same cloth. “He’s more myself than I am,” she says. “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Apparently that cloth was found in the remnants bin. In any case, they end up together only in a geographical sense and only because Heathcliff has the gall to insinuate his own grave in between Cathy’s and Edgar’s.
Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. Proof positive that in this world, even love has a glass ceiling. Gatsby becomes the man he thinks Daisy wants him to be, the man who, for all intents and purposes, she has married. But the ugly truth does eventually rear its well-barbered, immaculately groomed, heir-apparent head, and shatters the illusion that love really can conquer all. The only thing love conquers in The Great Gatsby is a life of physical poverty, which proves not to be so very different from emotional poverty. The results can still be the same.
Romeo and Juliet. The ultimate paradigm of soulmates destined to fail, Romeo and Juliet are often given more credit than they are due. Their behaviors are largely the result of adolescent impatience and parental negligence, yet we are always quick to turn to them as a great example of two people fated to find each other. What we can really stand to learn from Romeo and Juliet is that sometimes we become our own stumbling blocks because of good intentions. Love does, after all, cover a multitude of sins. Even our own.
Conclusion: In Literature, it seems, happy soulmates are few and far between. We have some solid examples to rely on when we’re feeling hopeful. But the proportion of happy lovers to ill-fated ones seems unquestionably unbalanced.
To discredit the other relationships, the ones built on a foundation of commitment and loyalty and, of course, love, would be to accept that there is only one perfect scenario out there for everyone. Literature constantly proves that this isn’t the case. For example:
Amy and Laurie. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Amy is not Laurie’s first choice. In fact, she is only a child while he’s experiencing his burgeoning adolescence, allowing his feelings for Jo to amplify. When he is rejected by Jo, Laurie does the requisite self-pity wallow, travels to Europe, and finds Amy, who has blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Were they destined to be together? Who knows? The important thing is that Laurie worked hard to improve himself for Amy. There was no aligning of the stars. Amy did not “just know” Laurie was the one. But they found each other. And they were happy together, so that’s something.
William Dobbin and Amelia Sedley. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair encompasses all manner of personality types, each with different relationship needs. Among these personalities we find Amelia, sweet, tender-hearted, all-trusting Amelia, who at the beginning of the book is convinced she will marry Captain Osbourne, whose character is not altogether savory. After his death in battle, Amelia is pursued by Captain Dobbin. Ardently, but respectfully, pursued. He cares for her and she for him, although not in the way he might wish. That kind of care and devotion doesn’t come about until the very end of the novel when Dobbin marries Amelia, albeit in a less infatuated state.
Hermia/Helena and Demetrius/Lysander. The very definition of complicated, the relationships in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream tangle and untangle themselves in rapid succession. At the beginning of the play, Hermia is hellbent on marrying Lysander, despite her father’s wish that she marry Demetrius. Helena, on the other hand, wants nothing but Demetrius. By the end of the play, each has managed to shake off Puck’s trickery (with the help of Puck himself, no less), and each girl has her guy. The important thing to remember here is that it wasn’t easy. Arriving at the ultimate conclusion took time, frustration, tears, and patience, a realistic portrayal of love in an otherwise fantastic world.
Conclusion: While none of these lists is conclusive (I’m fully aware the Literature offers up many contradictions and confirmations on the subject), certain patterns seem unavoidable. Soulmates, it would seem, fare only marginally well, while those who are persistent seem to ultimately find some version of happiness.
Maybe there are soulmates out there, people who are suited only for one other person. And maybe those people will be lucky enough to find each other. But for the rest of us, it’s good to know that happiness in love is still attainable. Who knows? Maybe the commitment and the compromise and the learning and the growing make the experience of being in love that much more intense. Maybe this whole love thing is a lot simpler than we thought. And maybe, just maybe, we can all live happily ever after.